On the morning of your first duel, an unusually attractive herald will arrive at your door bearing a sealed note and an encouraging smile. You should trust neither the note nor the smile. Duelling courts long ago figured out that first-time defendants are less prone to running away if it means embarrassing themselves in front of beautiful strangers. The practice might seem deceptive, even insulting, but just remember that you are the idiot who agreed to fight a duel.
Don’t bother opening the envelope. While the letter might start out with extravagant praise for your courage and dignity, it quickly descends into a lengthy description of the punishment for failure to show up at court. In case you’re wondering, the penalty in Tristia for attempted flight from a lawful duel is roughly the same as that of attempted flight from the top of a tall tree with a rope tied around your neck. So just take the unopened envelope from the herald, crumple it in your hands and toss it into the fire. It helps if you do this while uttering a dismissive snort or even a boisterous ‘huzzah!’ for best effect. Then as the flames feast upon the details of your upcoming demise, place your hands on your hips and strike a confident pose.
The herald might, at this point, suggest you put on some clothes.
Choose trousers or breeches made of a light, loose fabric, with plenty of room to move. There’s nothing quite so embarrassing as having your lunge come up short at the precise moment that your enemy is counter-attacking and he drives his blade deep into your belly just as your seams split at the crotch.
‘But wait!’ you say. ‘I haven’t done anything wrong! How did I end up in such dire circumstances when I don’t even know how to hold a sword properly?’
The herald will laugh brightly, as though firmly of the belief that you’re merely jesting, before ushering you out the door and escorting you to the courthouse to meet your secondier.
The law in Tristia, observed in all nine Duchies, requires that every duellist be supported by a second – for otherwise, who would go back and forth between you and your opponent to deliver the necessary scathingly droll insults? If you have no one of your acquaintance willing – or able – to fulfil this sacred duty, and you are too poor to hire a suitable candidate, then you can count on the local Lord or Duke to provide a secondier for you. That’s right: you live in a country so feckless and corrupt that those same nobles who would gladly stand aside as you starve to death would never, ever consider allowing you to be skewered by the pointy end of a blade without a second standing proudly beside you.
Make your way past the twin statues of the Gods of Death and War that guard the double doors leading into the courthouse and through to the large central room littered with exquisite architectural features, none of which you’ll notice, for by now your eyes will be fixed on the duelling court itself. The classical form is a simple white circle, roughly ten yards across, however, in these modern times you may instead find yourself in a pentagon or hexagon or whatever shape is deemed to be most blessed by the Gods in that particular Duchy. Once you’re done admiring the architecture, take a look at the person standing on the opposite side of the dueling court. This is the moment to remember to clench all the muscles in your lower body to prevent any . . . accidents.
Your opponent – likely a highly skilled Knight, or perhaps a foreign mercenary – will smile or grimace, or possibly spit at your feet, and then immediately turn away and pretend to be engaged in a thoroughly witty conversation with a member of the audience. Don’t worry too much about this part – they’re only doing it to unnerve you.
The clerk of the court will now announce the terms of the duel. You might be tempted to take heart when you hear that this duel isn’t to the death, but that would be a mistake. Whichever Lord or Lady you offended has almost certainly instructed their champion to first humiliate you, then bloody you, and finally – and with a grand flourish that will bring the audience to their feet, roaring with applause – kill you.
When this happens, you can rest assured that the presiding magistrate will undoubtedly make a great harrumphing noise over this gross violation of the rules, and will immediately fine said Lord or Lady, although that will be roughly equivalent to the cost of the wine in the goblet they’ll be drinking while watching you bleed out on the floor.
Not really your best day, is it?
Well, that’s for later. For now, take a good, long look at your opponent standing across from you in the duelling court, because this is the part where you learn how to win.
Your enemy is almost certainly a great fencer – someone with speed, strength of arm, exceptional balance, lightning reflexes and nerves of steel. A great fencer spends years studying under the finest masters in the country. You, regrettably, aren’t likely to have had the benefit of any of those fine qualities and there’s a good chance that your only fencing master was your best friend when the pair of you were six years old, play-fighting with sticks and dreaming of growing up to be Greatcoats.
But you don’t need to be a fencer right now; you need to be a duellist. A duellist doesn’t care about technique. A duellist won’t be walking into that circle hoping to impress the audience or curry favour with their nobles. A duellist cares about one thing only, that most ancient and venerable of axioms: Put the pointy end of the sword into the other guy first.
So as the clerk strikes the bell signalling the beginning of the duel and your opponent begins his masterful display of skill to the appreciative oohs and ahs of the audience, forget about life and death or honour and cowardice; forget about everything except finding that one opportunity – that single moment – when you can push the top three inches of your blade into your opponent’s belly.
In Tristia we have a saying: Deato mendea valus febletta. The Gods give every man a weakness.
Remember this, and you might just survive the day. In fact, over the years that follow, you might even go on to win other duels. You might even become known as one of the deadliest swordfighters of your generation. Of course, if that does turn out to be the case, then it’s equally likely that one day – perhaps even today – that great swordfighter who’s about to lose the duel?
It could be you.
Saint’s Blood © Sebastien de Castell, 2016